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When Movies Tell Great Stories: 5 Classics from the 1950s

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 No Spoilers

Gloria Swanson as Nora Desmond, Sunset Boulevard ©

In the 1950s Hollywood was losing its audience — and its earnings — to television. “Weekly movie attendance declined from 90 million in 1948 to 51 million in 1952… and thousands of cinemas closed.” To recoup financial losses and win back viewers, studios invested in films modeled after the industry’s former successes, but employing the latest technologies, such as EastmanColor, a single-strip film that made color movies less expensive, and Cinemascope, in which anamorphic lenses “stretched” a “distorted image” to fit a wide-screen format that was almost twice as wide as those of previous films. Grand-scale epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments appeared. Countless science fiction films, most based on the genre’s classic literature, created the genre’s Golden Age in Hollywood: War of the Worlds,  The Day the Earth Stood Still,  Forbidden Planet, and Them!

Character- and story-driven films resurged. Some were original, some were based on bestselling novels, and some were adapted from critically and financially successful stage plays, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Guys and Dolls, Sayonara, and Dial M for Murder. Most 1950s films featured powerful storylines, morally ambiguous characters, and memorable dialogue. Though the less expensive EastmanColor single-film technology was available, many directors chose to shoot their films in black-and-white, sometimes using unique or intriguing camera angles, perhaps imitating the classic Noir films from the 1940s. In many of these now-classic 1950s films, actors, screenwriters, and directors took huge artistic risks, creating some of the best films ever made. Here are five of the best 1950s classic films, presented in the order they were released, since they are all of outstanding quality.

Sunset Boulevard
(1950)


“Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Nora Desmond

One of the best films ever made, Sunset Boulevard stars a boyish William Holden as Joe Gillis, a struggling Hollywood screenwriter whose financial woes accidentally but serendipitously lead him to what he believes is an abandoned mansion. The neglected property is the home of silent-film star Nora Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who’s spent the last 20 years preparing for her great “comeback.” Intent on using Nora as a quick paycheck — by whipping her Salome into a feasible screenplay — Joe soon becomes ensnared in Nora’s celebrity world of wealth, possessions, and material comfort.

Gloria Swanson as Nora Desmond and William Holden as Joe Gillis, Sunset Boulevard ©

Though sexually involved with the older Nora, Joe casually and continually tugs the heartstrings on an ingenue (Nancy Olson) with whom he’s secretly writing another screenplay, and who knows nothing of his relationship with the jealous and emotionally unstable film star. Joe’s actions force all the characters to desperation, conflict, betrayal, and, ultimately, murder.

Gloria Swanson , William Holden, Erich Von Stroheim and Nancy Olson, Sunset Boulevard ©

A poignant hommage to Hollywood’s by-gone silent-film era, as well as an unflinching look at professional ambition, Sunset Boulevard was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won three, including one for co-writer and director Billy Wilder. Holden shines as the heel-with-half-a-heart, but Swanson’s brilliant and creepily gothic performance as the melodramatically bad Nora is what makes this film such a classic.

Trivia: Gloria Swanson was a real silent-film star, though, unlike Nora, she successfully transitioned into Talkies: all the photographs of Nora on display in her mansion are from Swanson’s own silent films.

Sunset Boulevard is available for rent from Amazon for $3.99 (viewing time once started is 48 hours, and you can watch it more than once for the same cost).

All About Eve
(1950)

“Fasten your seat belts:
it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Margo Channing

Sometimes Hollywood is at its artistic best when it turns its unforgiving lens on itself, as it does in All About Eve, an intense and brutally honest examination of the Machiavellian ambition in the theatre and film worlds. Bette Davis is New York stage star Margo Channing, who allows a seemingly naïve fan, Eve (Anne Baxter) to “worship” the star while becoming her personal assistant.

Gary Merrill as Margo’s beau Bill, Anne Baxter as Eve, Bette Davis as Margo Channing, All About Eve ©

Soon, Eve is causing dissension among all the characters; Margo, Margo’s longtime companion Birdie (Thelma Ritter), Margo’s beau Bill (Gary Merrill), playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), playwright’s wife (Celeste Holm), and theatre critic DeWitt (George Sanders). Everyone in the film is forced to re-evaluate their own personal lives, their morality, and their relationships after Eve infiltrates their lives.

Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and George Sanders, All About Eve ©

By the time a large number of the characters distrust Eve, however, she is already determined to conquer them all, and she doesn’t care how much damage she causes, as long as she herself becomes a star.

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis (foreground), George Sanders, Marilyn Monroe, and Hugh Marlowe (background), All About Eve ©

Filled with snappy lines and memorable performances, All About Eve was nominated for 14 Oscars, winning 6, including Best Picture. It is the only film ever with 4 Academy Award nominations for women: Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for Best Actress, Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress.

Trivia: Marilyn Monroe’s first important film role.

All About Eve is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started). Note: The original film trailer was a faux interview with Bette Davis regarding the fictional Eve. This trailer is a modern one, since may be more interesting to viewers unfamiliar with the stars of the film.

A Streetcar Named Desire
(1951)

“I have always depended on
the kindness of strangers.”
Blanche DuBois

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire came to Hollywood via Broadway. The production’s theater director, Elia Kazan, brought play to the big screen, using three of the stage show’s original stars: Marlon Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as his wife Stella, and Karl Malden as his best friend Mitch.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Kim Hunter as Blanche’s sister Stella, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

When Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) comes to New Orleans to live with her sister Stella, Blanche immediately dislikes Stella’s husband Stanley. The feeling is mutual: Stanley and Blanche clash constantly, causing a rift between husband and wife, and making the marriage erupt in angry, sometimes violent scenes. It is only because Stella is pregnant with their first child that Stanley permits his irritating and condescending sister-in-law Blanche to stay.

Karl Malden as Mitch and Vivien Leigh as Blanche, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

After his buddy Mitch falls for Blanche, intending to ask her to marry him, Stanley begins to investigate Blanche’s implausible stories of her past. As the tensions among the characters mount, Blanche and Stanley are driven to a ferocious confrontation in which each fights desperately for his own survival.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

Nominated for 4 Academy Awards — male and female Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor — A Streetcar Named Desire won three: Best Actress for Vivien Leigh, Best Supporting Actress for Kim Hunter, and Best Supporting Actor for Karl Malden.

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

Brando, who was nominated for Best Actor but did not win, was relatively unknown to film audiences at the film’s release. The play A Streetcar Named Desire was originally written with only one protagonist: the tortured and delusional Blanche. Brando’s performance as the equally tortured and sympathetic Stanley, a role which he originally “modified” on-stage and subsequently re-created in the film, catapaulted Brando to worldwide attention and critical acclaim.

Trivia: To mimic and symbolize Blanche’s claustrophobia, paranoia, and increasing anxiety, the set of Stanley & Stella’s apartment literally became physically smaller as film progressed, crowding the actors together.

A Streetcar Named Desire is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started).

On the Waterfront
(1954)

“I coulda been a contender.”
Terry Malloy

In his first Oscar-winning role (second nomination), Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a former boxer who dreamt of becoming a champion, now working as a longshoreman. Terry exists on the fringes of organized crime since his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is the right-hand man of dock gangster Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).

Eva Marie Saint as Edie and Marlon Brando as Terry, On the Waterfront ©

When one of Terry’s “favors” to Johnny gets a fellow longshoreman killed, Terry begins to feel the pricks of conscience — a commodity he would prefer to live without. After Terry meets Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of the murdered longshoreman, Father Barry (Karl Malden) exploits Terry’s awakening moral principles in an attempt to get him to testify against the members of organized crime on the docks.

Karl Malden as Fr Barry and Marlon Brando as Terry, On the Waterfront ©

Torn between his growing love for Edie and his loyalty to his fellow workers (along with his devotion to his brother Charley), Terry must decide whether it is better to live as a criminal failure than to risk dying an honest man.

Karl Malden as Fr Barry, Marlon Brando as Terry, and Eva Marie Saint as Edie, On the Waterfront ©

Based on a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative articles (“Crime on the Waterfront”) as well as on an original story by Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay, On the Waterfront was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning eight. In addition to Oscars for the co-stars, Brando and Saint, the film won Best Picture, and Best Director for Elia Kazan.

Trivia: Brando didn’t like his dialogue in iconic taxi scene, so he refused to say it. Director Kazan, tired of arguing with Brando, filmed him and co-star Steiger doing the scene improv, resulting in a classic.

On the Waterfront is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started).

Anatomy of a Murder
(1959)

“How can a jury disregard what it’s already heard?”
“They can’t… They can’t.”

One of the first mainstream films to discuss sex and rape in graphic terms, Anatomy of a Murder caused outrage when it was released in 1959. Jimmy Stewart stars as former prosecutor-turned-defense-attorney Paul Biegler, who’s hired by Army Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara) after he shoots and kills a man accused of raping Manion’s wife (Lee Remick).

Lee Remick as Laura Manion, Jimmy Stewart as Paul Biegler, and Ben Gazzara as Lt Manion, Anatomy of a Murder ©

Despite the fact that it’s Manion who’s on trial for murder, pleading “irresistible impulse” — another term for “temporary insanity” — and PTSD-induced “dissociative crisis,” it’s Manion’s wife Laura who is really on trial, in the courtroom and in the small community where they live. What she wore, whether she was drunk, and if she was provocative to the victim on the night in question occupy more of the trial than does the professional testimony of the psychiatrists who examined the war and combat veteran, who claims he unconsciously reacted with violence to his wife’s attack.

Brooke Adams, George C Scott, and Jimmy Stewart, Anatomy of a Murder ©

Attorney Biegler responds with outrage whenever the Special Prosecuting Attorney (George C. Scott) attacks the character of Manion’s wife, but viewers are presented scenes in which the “bored” and “lonely” young wife, who is undeniably attractive and who flouts society’s conventions by not wearing a girdle under her form-fitting clothes, flirts inappropriately with her husband’s defense attorney. Viewers have even more questions about what actually occurred between Manion’s wife and victim than do the jurors.

Lee Remick and Jimmy Steward, Anatomy of a Murder ©

Adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker (under the pseudonym Robert Traver), which was based on a sensational 1952 murder trial, Anatomy of a Murder vividly examines society’s discomfort with sex and sexuality, as well as with victims of sexual violence. Concentrating on the tendency to blame the victim in sexual assault and rape cases while simultaneously exonerating the victim in murder cases, the film is powerful for its morally ambiguous characters, its strong performances, and its groundbreaking handling of the topic of sexual violence. Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Best Picture, Anatomy of a Murder is considered among the Top 10 films in the category of Courtroom Drama.

Trivia: Films “explicit” language caused outrage, getting it banned in Chicago theatres. These words were considered especially offensive: bitch, slut, rape, contraception, penetration, sperm, and — believe it or not — panties.

Anatomy of a Murder is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started).

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How We Know the Dancer from the Dance

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O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

William Butler Yeats
“Among School Children”

Martha Graham by Max Waldman 1976 ©

Those two beautiful lines at the start of this post conclude William Butler Yeats’ intense recollection of his own childhood and life as he walks “Among School Children,” and when I first read the poem in school and asked, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” the less than illustrious professor said, almost snarling at my apparent stupidity, “We can’t. Why do you think he wrote that?”

I wondered at the professor’s lack of insight, thinking that, once again, I would be left to my own devices to discover why the poet had written that line as a question, not as a statement.

Since I was used to having my interpretations of literature mocked by classmates and teachers alike, or to having the teachers simply stare at me in bewildered dismay when I asked questions or gave my thoughts on the art, I wasn’t too upset by the professor’s attitude.

Disappointed, but not too surprised or upset. I’d thought college was to be a great place of learning and independent thinking: instead, it seemed to be very much like high school, which bored me unimaginably.

Mikhail Baryshnikov by Max Waldman 1976 ©

So, away I went, ceaselessly pondering how one does, indeed, know the dancer from the dance. It didn’t take me too long to figure it out. Being a great lover of the ballet, and fan of both Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, I already had two dancers and their dances to consider. The answer soon came to me: We know the dancer from the dance only when both dancers perform the same dance: then we can determine the dancer’s skill, interpretation, and talent from the steps of the dance itself.

Rudolph Nureyev by Richard Avedon 1962 ©

Then something else struck me. Every day, virtually all of us compare dancers and their dance. Not Nureyev and Baryshnikov necessarily, but the “dancers” that we see in our everyday lives.

When the starting quarterback is injured and the backup quarterback comes in to finish the game, his playing skills are immediately and punishingly compared to the “original”: sometimes the backup quarterback dances the dance so well, he achieves his own fame. Usually, there’s a reason he’s the backup quarterback, and even if he performs well for a few games, his dance usually falters eventually.

The same thing happened in the 2012 NFL football season with the professional referees, who were on strike and were replaced by amateurs. Everyone, from the players to the fans to the announcers, bemoaned the dreadful incompetence of the substitute referees. They were simply unable to dance the complex professional dance, and all cheered the return of the real dancers.

Natalia Makarova, by Max Waldman 1976 ©

Each time a remake of a film is made, we analyze how the latest actor did the role when placed beside those who came before him. How many times has Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice been made, and how many times has each actor’s performance been analyzed in terms of previous ones?

In addition to her dance as Lizzie in Pride & Prejudice, Keira Knightley danced in the remake of Anna Karenina (at least 18 film versions have been made, starring everyone from Greta Garbo to Vivien Leigh, and seven television adaptations), and many viewers compare each new Anna Karenina’s dance to those that came before, as this montage shows.

Meryl Streep, originally trained as an operatic singer, out-danced the original singers in ABBA when she performed “The Winner Takes it All” (in one take) for Mama Mia, stunning the writers of the song with her dance.

Each actor who dances the role of Batman is compared to all those before him; Heath Ledger’s dance of Joker from the Batman franchise is considered the epitome of that particular dance.

Each performer who dances the role of James Bond is compared to Sean Connery’s signature dance. Dickens’ Christmas Carol has been danced countless times, on stage, for television, and for film, and each dancer’s dance is unique. For Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, Gary Oldman wins my vote for his dance of this role, and not for the special effects. For Herman Melville’s famous Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick, Gregory Peck, though a fine dancer, was simply too young when he danced that role, so Patrick Stewart’s interpretation of that dance is incomparably better.

Each history/biography of Custer and his Battle at the Little BigHorn is analyzed not so much for its own value as for how well the dancer interprets this dance compared to all the Custer histories and biographies that are already available. The same is true for those who dance the histories of Marie Antoinette, Julius Caesar, Spartacus, Napoleon, King Henry VIII or any of his six wives.

In short, in all sorts of “theaters,” we compare the dancers and the dance in order to determine who performs a particular dance best.

Mikhail Baryshnikov

Surprisingly, almost 40 years after that first professor said, “you can’t tell the dancer from the dance,” a song brought me around to this speculation again: Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” one of the best “break-up” songs ever written.

Originally written and performed by Goyte, a Belgian-Australian musician/singer/songwriter named Wouter De Backer (Goyte, pronounced “Go-tee-ay,” is derived from the French “Gauthier,” the French equivalent of “Walter” or “Wouter”). Goyte’s song “Somebody That I Used to Know,” featuring Kimbra, has not only been awarded “Single of the Year” (ARIA Awards 2011) but has been danced, seriously and in parody, by many others.

I first became aware of Goyte’s song from Walk off the Earth’s cover of “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Their dance, revolving around all five of them playing the same instrument at the same time while singing the song, has received almost 140 million hits and won them an appearance (performance) on “Ellen.”

(The female singer of Walk off the Earth said it took them 26 takes to get this dance right for the Tube’s video, since any time any one of them made a faux pas, they had to start over from the beginning: they performed it live on “Ellen” flawlessly.)

Then came The Waffle Stompers’  dance of Walk off the Earth’s cover dance of Goyte’s original dance, this time involving a ukelele and a guy doing the girl’s part. Yes, a dance of a dance of a dance. Convoluted, amusing, or fascinating? You decide.

Other amateur dancers quickly arose, filling the Tube with their dances of “Somebody That I used to Know.” Some are mildly entertaining, some rather dull, some simply uninspired, some quite clever. Matthias Harris does it a capella. Even old-fashioned computers joined this dance (I first saw this version on Guy Bergstrom’s Red Pen of Doom). Incredible talent went into this version of the dance but, while it left me intellectually impressed, it didn’t move me emotionally.

Red Pen of Doom also introduced me to the Star Wars parody of the song, which is a bit different because the dancer does the same steps as Goyte in his original video, and merely changes the words which accompany the dance. Though entertaining if you’re a Star Wars or George Lucas fan, and can get all the allusions, I found the dance itself is uninspiring.

But between the time I first posted this blog (2012) and when I updated it (2017), a Minions version of Goyte’s song had appeared.

Of course, one parody leads to another, as one cover does to another, as each dancer tries to out-dance the original dancer, Goyte. So, we not only compare each dancer who does the same dance in order to “know the dancer from the dance”, but many of us try the dance ourselves.

I know which version of Goyte’s dance I prefer, and which dancer I believe dances “Somebody that I used to Know” best. But SadieDoggie and our Gang of Seven Rescue Cats wouldn’t let me finish this blog until I included their favorite version of the dance: (Dogtye, featuring Katra).

What say you, my Lovelies? Any dances that you prefer be performed by a particular dancer? Let me know in comments.

updated Aug 2017

 

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